David Thomas, Head of Policy (Access and Innovation) at Alzheimer’s Research UK, looks at what we need to make breakthroughs in dementia research
In 2019, COVID-19 plunged the world into uncertainty. Back then, we didn’t even have a name for the virus, and many certainly didn’t foresee the impact it would have on people’s lives.
As I write this, we now know that people with dementia have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. One in four people who died from COVID-19 in England and Wales also had dementia.
At the moment in the UK, we’re mostly free of COVID-19 restrictions. This is in large part due to the medical successes we’ve had, including the delivery of effective vaccines.
“It’s been twenty years since the last treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, the leading cause of dementia, was developed.”
At Alzheimer’s Research UK, we’re calling for the same approach that delivered the lifesaving vaccines to be applied to bring about the first life-changing medicines for dementia.
Why do we need a dementia treatment?
Of the UK’s leading causes of death, dementia is the fastest growing health condition. Almost one million people across the UK are living with it and this number is set to rise to 1.6 million by 2050.
Dementia is progressive and it can have a devastating impact on individuals and families. The diseases that cause dementia strike at humans’ most valuable resource, the cells of the brain. It takes away people’s memories, the ability to communicate and can leave people feeling disconnected from themselves and the world. Not only this, but the condition costs the UK economy £25 billion a year.
It’s been twenty years since the last treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, the leading cause of dementia, was developed.
And to this day, there are no treatments in the UK to stop or slow the diseases underlying the condition. With the damage that Alzheimer’s and similar diseases inflict, how can this be possible?
A new strategy needs to be implemented for breakthroughs in dementia research
To turn the tide, we need to see the prioritisation and urgent action taken to develop COVID-19 vaccines applied to dementia.
Research investment is a vital part of the solution, but we also need to see greater priority given to developing new treatments and better partnerships across the research community to enable this. As a UK dementia research charity, we’re calling on this government to convene a Dementia Medicines Taskforce.
The idea is that this taskforce would deliver and build on existing UK initiatives and act as a catalyst for radical action to accelerate the development of new dementia treatments.
This requires coordinated, bold action from government to bring together industry, the NHS, charities like ourselves, and researchers to ensure treatments reach people with dementia.
But what could a Dementia Medicines Taskforce look like?
Chaired by a senior figure and reporting directly to government, it could bring together representatives from industry, the NHS, charity, and also researchers, with a single focus on fast-tracking the development and delivery of new medicines for diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Its scope would be to look across the whole research pathway, but it would focus in particular on how we expedite the set-up of new dementia medicine trials and quickly recruit participants.
Boosting the number of volunteers in clinical trials is important and the taskforce would aim to increase the number of volunteers taking part in larger, late-stage dementia trials to pre-pandemic levels.
One of the difficulties in dementia research has been getting the right volunteers for the right trial. Current medicine trials are focused on finding people in the early stages of disease like Alzheimer’s at the point when treatment will be best able to modify the disease. However, often people with dementia are not diagnosed until later in the progress of their disease and are, therefore, not eligible for involvement in a clinical trial. We want to change this, and the Dementia Medicines Taskforce would help roll out cutting-edge diagnostics in the NHS to provide more accurate, early diagnosis. It would also develop a dementia health and care data registry to ensure people with a diagnosis are matched to the right studies, appropriate to their type of dementia and stage of disease.
One of the major accelerators for COVID-19 vaccines was the fast-tracking of regulatory procedures. And to help the most promising new treatments to make progress along the clinical trials pipeline, we need to see the same for dementia and help successful medicines to be rapidly assessed by regulators.
Supporting the NHS to deliver benefits to patients
A new treatment will have a large impact on the health system because of the sheer number of people living with dementia.
And the scale of the resources required in the NHS to deliver future treatments needs to be considered now.
The Dementia Medicines Taskforce would help ensure the NHS has the right clinical pathways and support for healthcare professionals to enable new medicines to be given as soon as they become available.
It would help fund those parts of the NHS that are already innovating and work with the NHS to implement this best practice more widely.
Onboard with our vision
The development of COVID-19 vaccines showed the power of science, the talent of our scientists and institutions, and what can be achieved with the right leadership from the government.
We need to see the same leadership now for those with dementia today and people who will go on to develop the condition in the future.
With your support, we can make sure people living with dementia and research into the condition remains a political priority. For more information, visit www.alzheimersresearchuk.org.
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